"I am committed to see that the public service broadcasters in India are autonomous'' : Jaipal Reddy - Information and broadcasting minister

Information and broadcasting minister Jaipal Reddy hasruled out any immediate change in the board of India's pubcaster Prasar Bharati, which manages Doordarshan and All India Radio. But has also dropped hints that the attitude of officials of Prasar Bharati has to change. "The culture which has been there to speak only in the favour of the government should be changed, I am working in this direction," the minister said during an interaction with listeners of radio BBC Hindi's special edition of Aapki Baat BBC Ke Saath last Sunday.

Speaking at length on the autonomy of Prasar Bharati and the need for it, Reddy said that though allies of the government may be fundamentally opposed to it, but it has to be done. According to him, only a financially autonomous Prasar Bharati could affair to be fair in its coverage of events. " Look at Britain, the country from where you are talking to me. There the BBC generates its resources from the (TV) licence fees. Since the BBC has its own resources, it is independent and autonomous," he explained.

Reddy also said that the present government is unlikely to "misuse" DD and AIR for propaganda and indicated that media laws are unlikely to be rolled back or revised to make them more stringent. Nor is he in favour of a ban of opinion polls before and after elections.

Excerpts from Reddy-speak on BBC radio:

BBC Q - Mr. Reddy, the obvious first question is why the governments in India are afraid of providing independence to state-run media?

Jaipal Reddy (JR) - I do not want to comment on the working style of my four immediate predecessors, but so far as I am concerned, my views on the autonomy of Prasar Bharati remain unchanged, I am committed to see that the public service broadcasters in India are autonomous, my views remain as they were seven years ago.

BBC listener from Muscat - Sir, there are 24 private TV news channels, and similarly there is access to anything in the world on the Internet. Why, then, is radio under strict governmental control, is it justified? What should we expect from the new government?

JR - I agree there should be no control of the government on Akashwani and Doordarshan. Legally, Prasar Bharati is autonomous, all of you would recall that I implemented the Prasar Bharati Act granting autonomy to this institution. At the moment, the major weakness being faced by Prasar Bharati is about the financial resources. At the moment, any institution which is dependent on the government for finances cannot be expected to work independently.

BBC Q - Mr Reddy, but if we look at the past five-six years, the entire idea of autonomy to Prasar Bharati has been throttled in a way - look at the political appointments. What sort of autonomy are we talking about?

JR - I agree with this, but, you see, the party which tried these tactics has been defeated by the people. There is no point in being critical of those rejected by the people, I am looking at the positive programme for the future now. My attention at the moment is focused on the financial autonomy of Prasar Bharati.

BBC Q - But how would you provide financial autonomy to Prasar Bharati?

JR - Today the expenditure of Prasar Bharati is Rs 1800 crore and the income is Rs 600 crore. Now, for Rs 1200 crore, it is dependant on the government. Till the time Prasar Bharati is dependent for this money on the government, autonomy cannot be there practically. Today I am the minister, tomorrow somebody else could be there, it could be another government. Therefore to put an end to this, financial autonomy is the answer. As to how to do this, there are several options. Look at Britain, the country from where you are talking to me: there the BBC generates its resources from the [TV] licence fees. Since the BBC has its own resources, it is independent and autonomous. Similarly, the Prasar Bharati should also be independent and autonomous. How to do it - I am working on this and looking for the possible ways, in consultation with all.

"Till the time Prasar Bharati is dependent for this money on the government, autonomy cannot be there practically"

BBC Q - Mr. Reddy, you are talking about revolutions and financial autonomy of Prasar Bharati. But the real situation is that all governments have made political appointments in the Prasar Bharati Board, and the word autonomy exists on paper only. Isn't this a sad state of affairs, what are the plans to reverse this?

JR - I do feel sad about political appointments. But the practical reality is that such appointments are bound to be there in the existing political system and the only way out of this is providing financial autonomy to Prasar Bharati and this is what this government is working at.

BBC Q - Mr. Reddy from where would the resources be generated for the financial autonomy?

JR - See I am giving the example of Britain for financial resources, where the licence fee is the source. In India, there used to be a licence fee earlier, which was abolished. It could be there again, a small cess could be levied, and there are a few other ideas like this. But no final decision has been taken so far.

BBC listener from Japan - Sir, ever since the idea of Prasar Bharati was mooted back in 1989, even after 15 years, this institution's autonomy leaves a lot be desired. The tradition of political appointments is continuing without any break. And appointees are those who dance to the tune of their mentors. What would do you do for a real autonomy?

JR - Legally, Prasar Bharati is autonomous, as I said earlier, but financially it is not. I am not thinking about changes in these appointments. There is no culture of autonomy in our country. We would have to encourage this culture. The officers appointed in India work as subordinates.

BBC Q - But, Mr. Reddy, the new government has made a good beginning in the Human Resources Department by appointing a committee of the experts to select the NCERT chairman. Would this be the case for all appointments so that this menace of political appointments is brought to an end and nobody should be able to point a finger and accuse the governments?

JR - I am working to put an end to such accusations.

BBC Q - Would you elaborate, Mr. Reddy?

JR - I would not like to bring any changes to the Prasar Bharati Board. But the culture which has been there to speak only in the favour of the government should be changed, I am working in this direction.

BBC listener from Raipur - Sir, why do the governments in India ignore radio? There are more than 100 TV cable channels in India, whereas the poor man, who can only afford radio, has to be content with Akashwani. Why can't radio listeners listen to world class news? The previous government inaugurated FM for Vividhbharti in 2001, but that is not fully operational so far.

JR - I agree that radio in India has been ignored to a large extent. I am going to give particular attention to the future of radio. As far as the local problem is concerned, it has been brought to my notice, and I will look into it and take steps.

BBC Q - Mr. Reddy, the TV revolution has changed the face of TV in India, but haven't the radio and print media been left behind?

JR - I feel the newspapers of India are doing well even when considered at the world level. I think the Indian papers do compete well at the international level. There is no need for a revolution for the newspapers. For the radio, yes there is definitely a scope for improvement in radio, we are working on it.

BBC Q - Mr. Reddy, why has the radio in India been in so much tighter governmental control and what is the plan for future?

JR - See, the utility of radio has to be understood, till now the governments have not realised the potential of radio, which has to be done now. We are encouraging private FM radio stations, and the potential of radio in Prasar Bharati would be encouraged further.

BBC Q - But, Mr. Reddy, even private stations on FM are for music programmes, and the governments in India have been reluctant to open radio for news and current affairs - why?

JR - We have not thought about this issue so far. It is

not easy to bring a revolution overnight. At the moment we are dealing with some fresh issues arising out of FM opening, let us solve that first.

BBC Q - But, Mr. Reddy, news and current affairs of entire world is available on TV, all views are available on the Internet. Why should radio listeners suffer? Why not allow them to listen to world programmes?

JR - As an individual, I have my views, but now, being a minister, I would not like to comment at this moment.

BBC listener from UAE - Sir, I feel that if autonomy were given to Prasar Bharati, corrupt officials would be exposed. Look at the Tehelka case, so much pressure was exerted on Tarun Tejpal that the case was lost somewhere, as independence of media was undermined. You are back in the ministry, so what would you do now?

JR - Tehelka was a private company and Prasar Bharati is a public broadcasting corporation. The CBI has the right to check corruption, CAG is there for accounting and auditing accuracy. My view is that being independent would eliminate grounds for corruption - and such questions.

BBC Q - But, Mr. Reddy, isn't Tehelka an example of how ruling parties in India can undermine the independence of media by witch-hunting against the organisations which expose inconvenient stories?

JR - Such tendencies and such culture would have to be brought to an end. The way in which the previous government tried to suppress the Tehelka case has not been liked by the Indian public and that is why the people voted against the BJP-led alliance.

"I think the Indian papers do compete well at the international level. There is no need for a revolution for the newspapers"

BBC listener from Bhopal - Sir, almost all TV channels showed opinion and exit polls during the recent general elections, and their findings are for all to see. How could a few analysts with their laptops be allowed to create an opinion for this vast country and that too wrong, is the government looking at some corrective measures?

JR - You are right, it is impossible to capture the public mood through any survey in a vast and diverse country like ours, but imposing a ban on such surveys is also not a good idea. I am in favour of a regulatory framework for the accountability of such surveys.

BBC Q - But, Mr. Reddy, there is a widespread perception that election surveys affect the voters' minds. How would you make the psephologists accountable and what standards should be there for them?

JR - We would have to work for a regulatory framework to fix the accountability of these polls, which would be based on unanimity between all political parties. It is not a question of any particular party. I am not in favour of any ban on such surveys as it would be against the spirit of democracy in India.

BBC listener from Hyderabad - Mr. Reddy, foreign newspapers and periodicals which deal with news and current affairs are not allowed to have their editions from India. This is due to a Cabinet Resolution of 1955. This has been in place for five decades now. Would your government continue with this in print media?

JR - The Cabinet Resolution of 1955 is still valid, but a number of changes have been made over the years. Earlier, Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) was not allowed at all, but now you have the FDI up to 26% in print media. Similarly, 7.5% of the content of foreign newspapers can be used through syndication. So, many changes have been made over the years, and we feel at the moment that the changes made so far are sufficient.

BBC Q - Mr. Reddy, the day you assumed your duties you expressed happiness on the stand taken by the BBC in the stand-off with the British government. You favour a BBC style of functioning. From where would you begin?

JR - Well, the beginning would have to be done by Prasar Bharati. As a minister I can provide independence, but it is Prasar Bharati which has to do it. The thinking is to have a culture of independence and autonomy.

BBC listener from Udaipur - Sir, any government which comes to power tries to impose its views and ideology on Prasar Bharati, which has badly undermined the institution and its impartiality and autonomy. For example the last government even started a 24 hour news channel on Doordarshan closer to the elections. It clearly shows how governments use state media as a tool. Would your government be different or would the same things continue?

JR - Before the elections our party also accused the government of misusing this channel. But today I would not like to go into the past. I can assure you that our party and our government would not misuse Prasar Bharati in any way, our position is clear.

BBC Q - Mr. Reddy, however the original question remains, that there are ways and means to misuse Prasar Bharati, why not make a law so that this misuse becomes impossible for all future governments?

JR - Precisely for this reason I am trying to bring a change in the system. So that the autonomy of Prasar Bharati is not dependant on the personality of the minister concerned. I would take steps to have a new tradition of autonomy.

"There is a lack of clarity in the print media policy. I will try to bring clarity to this media policy by clearly defining these terms"

BBC Q - But despite this talk of autonomous tradition, having appointees of a particular ideology in All India Radio (AIR) and Doordarshan (DD), which have the maximum reach in the country, isn't this an injustice toward the people of the country ?

JR - It is an injustice, beyond doubt, I agree, and I feel that diverse viewpoints should find a place on AIR and DD.

BBC listener from Abohar - Sir, but what we have seen in our country is that on AIR and DD you hear and see only the ruling party. What is the biggest obstacle, in your view, in making them autonomous?

JR - The biggest obstacle is our own tendency! For any change, first of all, the minister and the officials would have to change and develop an independent mindset. The second problem is absence of financial autonomy and till any institution remains dependant on the government financially, it cannot be independent.

BBC Q - Mr. Reddy, your plan of financial autonomy could run into trouble, particularly from your allies the Left parties. Are you confident of their support?

JR - I can say about the Left parties that they are, like myself, committed to the autonomy of the public service broadcasters. They would not raise objections to resource generation, I am confident on this front.

BBC Q - Mr. Reddy, you say autonomy for Prasar Bharati, with financial autonomy, is your priority. What else figures in your priority list?

JR - There is a lack of clarity in the print media policy. There is this issue of Foreign Institutional Investors and what should be the definition of specialty magazines, and I will try to bring clarity to this media policy by clearly defining these terms.

BBC Q - Mr. Reddy, in the end, I would like to ask

whether your government will reverse and change the policies of the NDA government to which your party and your allies were opposed?

JR - We will make changes only where it is necessary. But I am clear that we would not make unnecessary changes. The government is a continuous institution, and abrupt changes are not in the interest of the country.

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